The origin of the John Brown song
With the Civil War came many patriotic songs and hymns. Fort Warren the was the birthplace of the greatest of them all. The famous Yankee song "John Brown's Body," was the product of the 2nd Infantry or Tiger Battalion and came into being while the men were quartered at Georges Island. The Tiger Battalion arrived at Fort Warren on April 29, 1861.
When they landed on the island, the members found great heaps of earth lying around inside the parade ground, and it was made clear to the men that their first job would be to put the fortress into proper shape for military occupancy.
Singing seemed to be the best way for the men to pass their time while working on the pick and shovel, and all the popular songs of the day echoed across the parade ground.
After the work was completed, the men gathered in the casemates and sang far into the night. Religious hymns were popular, and the favorite hymn sung at the fort grew to be "Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us?" From this hymn sung time and time again, came the tune which eventually became "John Brown's Body."
The man who lead the raid on Harper's Ferry had a Scotch namesake in the Tiger Battalion. John Brown always joined in the fun at the fort, and when it was realized that he had the same name as the abolitionist hanged near Harper's Ferry, the others lost no time in making him the object of their fun.
While the song "John Brown's Body" was still in its infancy, the 12th Massachusetts Regiment, commanded by Fletcher Webster, came to Fort Warren. In a short time the tune was known by the whole company.
One Sunday night the regiment band at a joint dress parade electrified the gathering by striking up "John Brown's Body." This was the first time the song was ever played by a military band.
The 14th Regiment came to the fort, and they also enjoyed singing the song even after the Tigers had left the island. When the 14th went to Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Julia Ward Howe visited the camp of the Massachusetts soldiers. The stirring strains of "John Brown's Body" so moved Lincoln that he asked Julia Ward Howe to compose a hymn from the tune. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was her inspired answer.
The crowds went wild everywhere when they heard the magical strains of "John Brown's Body," and the melody soon reached the far corners of the Union. The great value and inspiration it was to the Northern troops will probably never be fully realized.
--Excerpted from An Island Citadel
During World War II government artists painted colorful murals on the chapel walls of the Protestant Chapel. It became known as the "John Brown" Chapel because one of the panels depicted the writing of the famous song at the fort.
In May 1981 vandals set fire to the chapel and completely destroyed it along with the murals.